Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 220

Russian news media have in recent days given as much attention as their U.S. counterparts have to the revelation that the Kremlin will withdraw from a 1995 Russian-U.S. agreement limiting Moscow’s arms sales to Iran. As described in a Jim Hoagland piece published by the Washington Post on November 22, the Russians announced their intention to withdraw from the Iran arms agreement in a note which Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sent to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on November 3. As of December 1, the note read, Moscow would no longer observe restraints on arms sales to Iran negotiated in 1995 by Vice President Al Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. That agreement permitted Russia to fulfill–by the end of 1999–arms contracts signed earlier between Moscow and Tehran, effectively waiving sanctions which the Clinton administration might have imposed on Russia for the arms sales. But the agreement required in return that Moscow forego the signing of any new arms deals with Iran. Although the outlines of the deal were made public in 1995, Republicans used revelations of some secret details of the arrangement to criticize Gore during the recent U.S. presidential campaign.

Official and unofficial Russian sources have given a number of reasons for Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. For one, the Russians have accused the United States of having itself first violated the agreement precisely by allowing details of the accord to be publicized during the presidential campaign. There have also been references to alleged U.S. arms sales to Afghanistan’s Taliban government, and to what Moscow says are moves by U.S. NATO allies to negotiate arms deals of their own with Tehran. Russian sources have also pointed to positive changes in Iran’s domestic political climate.

However, many Russian commentators, like their U.S. counterparts, have suggested that these reasons are little more than pretexts for the Russian decision to resume arms dealings with Iran. Some suggest, in particular, that Moscow chose to move on the matter only days before the U.S. presidential election so as to deal with the issue before the selection of a new U.S. leader. The argument has also been voiced in Moscow that the sanctions the United States has threatened over Russian arms trading with Iran would amount to small change compared to what the Russians can earn by selling weapons to Tehran. Indeed, according to one Russian account, Moscow may already have lost as much as US$4 billion as a result of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement. Russian government officials suggest that Moscow could recoup a considerable portion of that amount in new arms deals with an Iranian government which is–in Moscow’s view–flush with money from high oil prices (AP, November 22-23; Washington Post, Reuters, November 23; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Moscow Times, Vremya novostei, Kommersant, November 24).

But Russian accounts have also speculated that the decision to withdraw from the agreement could be part of a broader reorientation of Russian foreign policy which reflects a transitioning from the Yeltsin to the Putin presidency. What is perhaps most interesting of all in this regard is the suggestion by one Russian daily that the decision to revive military-technical cooperation with Tehran has been driven to an important degree by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). SVR analysts have reportedly argued successfully that the advantages of resuming full-fledged arms sales to Iran would outweigh any negative consequences–presumably including U.S. sanctions–which might flow from the decision (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 24).

In that regard, the decision to defy the United States by resuming arms trading with Iran could reflect the growing influence of the intelligence community within the Russian government as a whole–and within the arms export establishment in particular. It may be no accident that the Foreign Ministry’s note to the U.S. State Department came as the Kremlin was launching a comprehensive shake-up of the Russian arms export hierarchy. Perhaps the most notable feature of that shake-up is the installation of former intelligence officers in three key arms export posts (see the Monitor, November 22). Some commentators suggest that Moscow could be readying itself for a new push to increase its arms export revenues, and that the targets of its efforts could be some of the states deemed most undesirable by Washington: that is, Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria as well as Iran (Segodnya, Reuters, November 24).

Moscow and Washington have long been at loggerheads over alleged Russian exports of nuclear and missile technology to Iran, and the new Russian move to increase conventional arms exports to Iran seems likely to only further increase tensions with Washington. Indeed, Russian government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov, have dismissed–and denounced–warnings from the Clinton administration that Russia risks new sanctions by expanding its ties with Iran in this area. Moscow has also argued that its arms dealings with Iran violate no international norms, and that it is under no obligation to observe arms trade restrictions formulated by the United States unilaterally. One Russian lawmaker has likewise suggested that Moscow’s economic weakness compelled it in 1995 to reach an unfavorable accommodation with the United States over arms sales to Iran, but that such circumstances no longer prevail and that Russia’s national interests are best served now by selling arms to Tehran (AP, November 26; Washington Post, Reuters, November 24).

Russian sources have also suggested that developments in this area could move fairly quickly. The Russian note to the U.S. State Department said that Moscow would consider itself free to begin negotiating new arms deals with Tehran on December 1 of this year. If Iranian sources are to be believed, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev will travel to Tehran sometime in January for talks which will presumably include discussions of arms deals. Sergeev’s visit will also service, according to Iranian and Russian sources, as a prelude to a possible meeting between Putin and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in the first half of 2001. According to Russian diplomatic sources, the two sides have already “begun to work out the official part of the forthcoming Russian-Iranian summit” (AFP, November 26; IRNA, Russian agencies, November 25).